Anyone channel surfing in the middle of the day or late at night has seen them: legal advertisements asking, “Have you or a loved one been diagnosed with mesothelioma?” 

But mesothelioma isn’t just a buzzword. It’s an aggressive cancer that kills thousands of fathers, mothers, sons and daughters in the United States annually. Many are retired blue-collar workers or military veterans. 

Oncologists diagnose an estimated 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma each year, according to the American Cancer Society. While treatment options, such as surgery and immunotherapy, have come a long way, there is still no cure. 

“[The cure] is out there somewhere now,” said thoracic surgeon Dr. Raja Flores of Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. “We’ve got to come up with something that no one has put together yet.”

Basics of mesothelioma 

Inhaling or ingesting microscopic asbestos fibers — the primary cause of mesothelioma — can lead to genetic changes that create cancer cells. Increased exposure to asbestos leads to a greater risk of developing cancer.

Symptoms of mesothelioma begin to appear 20-50 years after initial exposure. Those symptoms include shortness of breath, dry cough and chest pain. Because they appear later in life, it makes early diagnosis and treatment difficult. 

The four types of mesothelioma are defined by where the tumors are found:

  1. Pleural mesothelioma, the most common type, is found in the protective tissue surrounding the lungs

  2. Peritoneal mesothelioma appears in the abdominal area

  3. Pericardial mesothelioma attacks the heart sac

  4. Testicular mesothelioma is found in the testes

Hope for a Cure 

As with other cancers, medical researchers have strived to find a cure for mesothelioma. But a lack of research-funding and awareness of the disease make significant medical breakthroughs difficult. 

Some believe a cure lies in prevention and early detection. 

“The real gains will be made from finding it earlier,” said Dr. Harvey Pass, a surgeon and longtime leader in mesothelioma advances. “Treatments will work better. It could be very important in turning this into a chronic illness.”